I have a complicated relationship with Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s 2013 big screen reboot of Superman. In the cinema I liked it, albeit with some caveats. On home video I felt the other way around: that those earlier caveats crippled the movie, and that the more positive aspects simply weren’t strong enough to redeem the film. Eight years on and I find myself somewhere in the middle: Man of Steel is one hell of a mess, but it definitely has something to it that has tempted me back yet again. ‘Curate’s egg’ is rather a stereotypical term to apply to a work, but in this case it is probably the most appropriate one to use. If you have never seen the film, and want to, I must warn you I will unavoidably spoil the film’s ending below.
Very quickly: when his home planet Krypton is destroyed, an infant Kal El is safely hidden on the planet Earth where he is adopted by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). As the adult Kal El (Henry Cavill), now living under the name Clark Kent, tries to find his place in the world while hiding his super powers, Earth comes under threat from Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his soldiers – who plan to capture Kal and terraform Earth into a new Krypton.
Here is the main problem: it is a solid movie, but a terrible Superman movie. Superman is an upbeat social justice power fantasy in which a super-human protagonist solves crimes and rescues people from disasters. If you go back and read the original Action Comics stories by creators Siegel and Shuster, he has a pretty limited power set: he can run faster than a speeding bullet, is more powerful than a locomotive, and is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. That was honestly about it at first. Every other power associated with the character came as later generations of writers looked for methods of jazzing up the narrative, including flight, heat and x-ray vision, super-hearing, and the ability to hold his breath in space. Despite a growing power set, however, his core purpose remained: to fight crime in Metropolis, a thinly veiled replica of Manhattan. He cares about the little people. He is loved by the little people. He would never, ever kill.
Along comes Man of Steel, riding the back of Christopher Nolan’s successful Dark Knight films and directed by rising star Zack Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead). It has a very simple rationale to separate it from earlier Superman films: it will be a realistic take on the character. It will specifically be a post-9/11 take as well, relying heavily on that terrorist attack’s imagery as indelibly related through news media in 2001. This is already a terrible take for a Superman story. Superman is an upbeat, bright character. I have this half-baked theory that the comic book characters can be split into day and night types: the night characters work well in contemporary film and television, as they are grim and bleak and generally hopeless and can comfortably survive a shift from children’s entertainment to an all-ages product. Characters like Batman, the Punisher, Green Arrow, and Daredevil thrive in this environment. The day-time heroes are much harder to shift into an all-ages format, because adult audiences tend to struggle with anything too bright and silly. Superman is often described as a boy scout: a big, goofy, primary-coloured hero without physical limits but with a rigid code of right and wrong. Making the character more ‘realistic’ in Man of Steel‘s case means making him darker.
A darker Superman can make for strong drama, but it will cause the core mythology of the character to collapse. Man of Steel reworks the character’s rural Kansas childhood, turning adoptive father Jonathan Kent from the noble farmer who teaches Clark right from wrong to a paranoid man full of fear, warning his son that the broader world will not accept or trust him. It’s a realistic enough take, but ignores the central element that Superman is innately trustworthy. This change leads into a second problem: that the adult Clark hides himself and his powers from the world. In Man of Steel, the world’s first experience of Superman is as an alien hiding among them who must be revealed upon the threat of more aliens devastating humanity. The public do not trust him, because he has done nothing to earn their trust. Compare this to Richard Donner’s masterful Superman: The Movie (1978) in which half an hour is dedicated simply to showing Christopher Reeve’s Superman doing good deeds around Metropolis.
Man of Steel is particularly egregious when it comes to screen violence. Snyder directs a film where the powers of Kryptonians like Superman are taken to a logical extreme. When Superman battles Zod, entire buildings collapse. Huge explosions level city blocks. Literally billions of dollars in property damage is generated by a single fist-fight, and while Snyder goes some way to sanitise the effect it isn’t difficult to work out thousands of people will have died. At the film’s climax, Superman is given no option but to snap Zod’s neck. While promoting the film back in 2013 Snyder talked considerably about how this was part of his realistic take: that audience knew Superman wouldn’t kill, but why? That Snyder felt Superman needed a specific life experience to turn him against murder says an awful lot about why the director’s take on the character was so blindly misguided. Why doesn’t Superman kill? Why aren’t there more grim, realistic takes on Superman out there? Why does Superman fight crime when he could solve world hunger? If we change any of these things, then he is no longer Superman – just an identical power set and US$100 million’s worth of computer-generated effects.
This is the problem with Man of Steel. The film is wonderfully cast. It has some absolutely jaw-dropping effects sequences. The climactic city battle is superbly realised, and executed on a near-unprecedented scale. Hans Zimmer’s score is close to a career-best, with a central theme that actually rivals John Williams’ celebrated 1978 version. It is simply bad Superman.